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Rays get OK from MLB to explore split season between Tampa Bay and Montreal

General view of Tropicana field during the sixth

General view of Tropicana field during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees on June 23, 2018 at in St Petersburg, Florida. The Rays won 4-0. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Julio Aguilar

The Tampa Bay Expos? Montreal Rays?

The name can be worked out later. But commissioner Rob Manfred made it clear Thursday that Major League Baseball, and the franchise that currently calls Tropicana Field home, is looking for a more profitable Canadian outpost, on a part-time basis, at the very least.

At the conclusion of this week’s owners meetings in Manhattan, Manfred began his closing remarks by saying the sport’s Executive Council — with his endorsement — had given the Rays approval to “explore” playing a schedule that would split the team’s home games between the Tampa Bay region and Montreal.

The Rays already have been working on new stadium proposals, mostly on the Tampa side — the Trop is in St. Petersburg. And they are locked in to staying in Florida through the 2027 season, which is why MLB’s owners apparently floated the idea of divvying up the 81-game home portion with Montreal, baseball’s new coveted destination despite the city blowing its previous chance.

“The purpose of a split season would be to preserve baseball in Tampa, but improve the economics of the club overall by playing some of their games in Montreal,” Manfred said Thursday. “There is no commitment on the part of the owners to ultimately approve a plan.

“The permission that was granted was simply permission to explore this alternative in an effort to strengthen a franchise that’s performed great on the field, but continues to be pretty limited from an economic perspective.”

While Manfred’s words immediately energized the nostalgic fans longing for baseball’s return to the province of Quebec, the dream apparently died only hours after it was announced. Rick Kriseman, the mayor of St. Petersburg, soon posted a statement on Twitter that left little doubt regarding the city’s position on the split-schedule.

“The Rays cannot explore playing Major League Baseball games in Montreal or anywhere else for that matter prior to 2028, without reaching a formal memorandum of understanding with the City of St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “Ultimately, such a decision is up to me. And I have no intention of bringing this latest idea to our city council to consider. In fact, I believe this is getting a bit silly.”

This being a political issue, there is always room for negotiation, and Manfred cautioned during his comments that this idea was very much in its infancy, with expected holdups among the local governments involved. It’s not like the Rays would be playing games in Montreal next season.

Some point in the next decade — if at all — seemed more plausible. But MLB’s tactics also had the feel of pushing for a resolution in the Tampa Bay area, one way or another. The Rays entered Thursday ranked 29th in average home attendance (14,545). Only the Marlins are worse (9,378).

“Once you have people talking, anything is possible,” Manfred said regarding a timetable. “We’ve done this before. It’s not an unprecedented step for baseball. But there was no commitment discussion granted on the issue of a permanent relocation. It was simply the split season possibility.”

In 2003, the Expos played 22 of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico — a split that helped them draw over a million in attendance for the first time since 1997. A year later, MLB announced the Expos were relocating to Washington for the 2005 season, and the franchise was rebranded as the Nationals.

More netting on way?

Two more teams announced plans for expanded protective netting Thursday and Manfred said that it remained a priority for baseball. The commissioner added, however, that it was up to the individual clubs to determine how they would handle their own stadiums.

“The difficulty is every ballpark design is a little different,” Manfred said. “It is very difficult to come up with a one size fits all rule that you impose on the clubs. I think we feel that we have been more successful by allowing this issue to go forward on the basis of what it really is — a local issue as to how a ballpark is going to operate.”

Juiced balls after all?

When asked about the record-breaking homer pace this season, and suspicions about this year’s baseball, Manfred didn’t deny it was different, as a report issued by MLB suggested last season. The commissioner said the manufacturing process has improved to the point where the “pill” in the middle is more centered, causing the ball to wobble less when hit, and fly better.

“We believe that the batch of baseballs that we have this year have less drag,” Manfred said. “Our thinking in that regard was colored by the report that was done last year that identified that as an issue. Our ongoing conversations with the scientists suggest that.”

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